WAYNE, NJ – The Wayne Township Council Chambers looked painted red as just about every seat in the council held teachers from Wayne and across the state wearing red in unity and holding signs that stated: “WE ARE ALL EDA FERRANTE," with a painted fist held in the air.
The educators were at the Wayne Board of Education (BOE) meeting to support embattled Wayne Education Association (WEA) President Eda Ferrante, who was ordered to report back to the classroom as a full-time history teacher.
For the last four years, Ferrante has been the full-time release president for the WEA, which meant that Ferrante did not teach. Her time was spent performing her WEA union duties on full-time release. She was paid her full salary by the BOE, but 75% of her salary was reimbursed to the district by the WEA. The district also paid for their share of Ferrante’s benefits. This arrangement has been a standard practice in Wayne and in a handful of New Jersey districts for years and was agreed to as part of the Wayne Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
However, at the end of August of this year, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division issued a decision in the case of Rozenblit v. Lyles, which was a lawsuit against the Jersey City Board of Education that argued the legality of the full-time release statute in their CBA.
To the crowd that packed the council chamber, Wayne BOE Attorney John Geppert read a statement regarding the appellate court’s decision: “The court determined that this provision was void and unenforceable.” He continued: “In the published decision of Rozenblit versus Lyles, the appellate division found that the statue did not authorize the board to pay salaries and benefits of the association president and his designee while they devoted their entire work time to the business and affairs of the union.”
Geppert also stated: “As a published appellate division case, this decision applies statewide.”
Because of this ruling, the Wayne Board of Education, following the advice of their attorney. decided that the section of the Wayne CBA that provided for full-time release salaries was against public policy and unenforceable, and that the BOE’s distribution of funds in this regard was outside of its authority.
At the previous Wayne BOE meeting held on September 5, 2019, Ferrante attended with NJEA field representative for the WEA and listened to Geppert read the same prepared statement on the decision. After, Citron read a prepared statement saying that the appellate decision was “incorrect because boards of education have the broad authority to fix the terms of compensation through collective bargaining unless otherwise limited by statute. That’s why we, the NJEA, filed a brief in support of a stay pending a petition to the Supreme Court.” Citron urged the Wayne BOE to consider a compromise and not resort to “such draconian measures.” No one from the board commented after Citron’s plea. It seemed the decision had already been made, and Ferrante would return to the classroom.
The statewide implications of this decision in Wayne brought out the most powerful members of New Jersey’s education associations including Marie Blistan, the President of NJEA, Sean Spiller, the Vice President of NJEA, Sue Butterfield, the President of the Passaic County Education Association and a crowd of other educators who packed into the Wayne Council Chambers for the September 19 meeting.
Once the meeting moved to the phase that allowed public comment, Dennis Carrol an officer of the WEA spoke passionately saying that some members of the board “we see as, too often, being antagonistic toward the educators of this district.” He went on: “Simply stated, the educators of this district are losing faith in the ability of this board and the superintendent to run this district in the best interest of the educational community here in Wayne.”
Spiller addressed the board, talking about full-time release education association presidents: “Having someone who has the time to solve the issues that we have in our district, to make sure we have people who can focus on the jobs that they need to do with our kids every day, is a good thing for all of us.”
After the long round of applause died down for Spiller’s speech, Blistan stepped up to the podium and in her charming way talked about how the Education Weekly found that the New Jersey Public Schools were number one in the United States and that Wayne Valley and Wayne Hills High Schools rank in the top 20% in the nation. “There is a reason for that,” said Blistan. “We’re also ranked as the number one and strongest public sector union in the United States. I saw the rise and strength of the union at the same time that I saw the rise and strength of our public education system.” She finished with a plea to the board: “Our children are number one. Not number Two. Not number three. I ask you very respectfully to please consider the information, do what is right for this district and for our kids.”
Next came Passaic County Education Associations President, Butterfield. “There’s a lot of heart that goes into education and similarly there’s a lot of heart that goes into union work. The working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students. We make sure that things are working smoothly for our teachers. This is not just about a union president not being available to her members, this is about all of the things she does on a daily basis that makes the process smooth. You need the union,” she said emphatically. “Let’s support your members in making the best situation possible for your students to learn.”
The board members, most of whom are former educators and union members, echoed the same statements of pro-education and pro-children that the union speakers gave, and also sharing their dislike for the situation. As each spoke, they stated their desire to sit down with the unions to discuss the issue; that they were following attorney advice; that they heard that that there were solutions but did not know what the solutions are.
Superintendent Mark Toback spoke last. “Ultimately it was a legal decision. It’s not the WEA’s fault, it’s not the District’s fault, but it is a difficult situation that we face. It came upon us. It wasn’t planned. I think it caught everyone by surprise.”
After the meeting, it was arranged that NJEA President Blistan would meet with Superintendent Toback on Friday. The two sides are sitting down with each other to discuss the issue. At the very least progress was made.
As more information comes in, TAPinto Wayne will provide follow-up on this issue.